Abstinence is the Beginning of Long-term Recovery

Read on for some sobering thoughts, facts, and research that support the desperate need for long-term abstinence based recovery solutions for drug addiction and alcoholism.

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Many people struggle to find lasting recovery from their drug addiction and/or alcoholism. Abstinence based solutions for people with a substance use disorder (SUD) have proven to be very reliable and effective tactics for finding long-term sobriety. 

The following are some sobering thoughts, facts, and research that support the desperate need for and efficacy of long-term abstinence based recovery solutions for drug addiction and alcoholism:

  • Overdose Deaths Are Skyrocketing:  The CDC has recorded the highest-ever drug deaths between May 2019 and May 2020 and with the COVID-19 pandemic it is likely these deaths will only increase, so long-term recovery solutions are needed now more than ever.  Many people know how to get sober, but struggle with being able to remain sober over the long haul to not only survive but thrive in recovery.

  • Co-Occurring SUD and Mental Health Disorders in Recovery Are The Norm:  Compounding the issue, as many as two-thirds of all people in treatment for drug abuse report that they were physically, sexually, or emotionally abused during childhood.  These traumas can lead to co-occurring mental health disorders with SUDs which now is considered the norm with people entering into recovery, especially with those that have reached the point of seeking a long-term abstinence based solution.

  • It Takes Time to Heal the Damage Done During SUDs:  According to NIDA (pg.22), The National Institute on Drug Abuse, Science of Addiction, it can take up to 14 months for the brain to heal from methamphetamine use, sometimes longer. It goes on to say treatment of chronic diseases like addiction involve changing deeply rooted behaviors. (pg.23) …detoxification alone without subsequent treatment generally leads to resumption of drug use. (pg.24)…Because addiction can affect so many aspects of a person’s life, treatment should address the needs of the whole person to be successful. (pg.25).  It is no wonder that treatment durations of 30-90 days aren’t sufficient for many to bring about the core change in beliefs and behaviors needed to bring about an awakening to long-term recovery.
  • There is No Quick Fix For SUDs:  It often takes several attempts of seeking recovery to be able to sustain long-term recovery, which is why it is sometimes called a relapsing disease. By the time someone is willing and desperate enough to go to any lengths to achieve a long-term solution, they have usually been through the ringer with short-term treatment modalities, lost jobs and relationships, declining health, incarceration, and/or trips to mental health institutions.

  • A Sober Support Community Matters:  According to an evaluation of 27 studies reviewed by Stanford School of Medicine and Harvard Medical school professors among others published on March 11, 2020, most of the studies that measured abstinence found AA was significantly better than other interventions or no intervention.  None of the studies found AA to be less effective. The 12-Steps are not for everyone, but they are a powerful approach to providing the tools necessary to get and stay sober, especially when combined with a sober support community and living environment.

  • Unity, Service and Recovery:  An NIH study on Pathways to Long-Term Recovery states that 12-step programs have a 3-pronged approach including unity (a common purpose), service (to others) and recovery (practicing the 12-steps with peer mentors).  The support of peers, family, and friends was cited as an important factor in recovery, that recovery is a dynamic process that makes changing demands over time in terms of coping strategies and can thus be stressful.  Moreover, the support of, particularly recovering peers, provides hope, coping strategies and role models, giving strength in the trying times.  

  • Hitting Bottom Helps:  According to the same NIH study mentioned above, among recovering substance users, “hitting bottom” is often cited as the turning point and the beginning of their recovery. Hitting bottom is the realization of how much has been lost to substance abuse (home, health, friends, self-respect) and how much more will be lost – life itself – lest a drastic change is made. Hitting bottom is often what brings people into treatment and 12-step meetings. The negative consequences of substance use have previously been identified as a significant predictor of short-term abstinence (see earlier discussion). As early recovery progresses, one begins to regain health, social connections, and self-respect. With increased stability, the stakes get higher: one of the most important single prognostic variables associated with remission from addiction is having something to lose (e.g., friends, health, job, or freedom) if substance use continues or resumes (e.g., Costello, 1975 et al; Havassy, 1993; Vaillant, 1995). This in turn may strengthen commitment to abstinence (Fiorentine and Hillhouse, 2000b).   

One size does not fit all in recovery.  What has shown to have the best long-term outcomes is for people in recovery, especially with co-occurring disorders, to be in the same safe place with the same recovering people, doing the same recovery based things for as long as possible – optimally, at least a year. This is so your mind, body, and spirit has the chance to heal from the years of abuse most of us have endured during these times.  During this process you should actively, consistently, and with integrity engage in a recovery process that helps bring about a fundamental change in your thinking, feelings, and actions in a way that will enable you to live a successful sober life, one day at a time. 

People with SUDs seeking recovery typically want a quick fix to their struggles with immediate gratification, thinking that is the easier softer way to live their life in their active addiction.  Unfortunately, as you can see above, a long-term recovery process takes hard work as people are often also trying to heal from the layered, complex, and deep damage that has been done during years of active addiction. The things we typically don’t want to engage in are the most imperative and crucial – such as honesty, open-mindedness, willingness, patience, and humility.  This requires doing the consistent and hard work that has depth and weight to uncover, discover, and discard the maladaptive thinking and behavior that keeps us in our addiction and instead embrace the honesty, hope, faith, and courage it takes to awaken to a new way of life – and ultimately enables long-term recovery.

It is never too late to begin your recovery journey.  I invite you to do it today.

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